After a volatile weekend of rocket fire and air strikes, a senior IDF commander warned on Monday that a military incursion against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is inevitable.
“I think that we can’t avoid another confrontation,” said Col. Yonatan Branski, deputy commander of the Gaza Division. “There are a lot of weapons inside the Gaza Strip. There are terror groups and they try to hit civilians. They do it all of the time," he added. "Just in the past days we have had 39 rockets and mortar shells fired into Israeli territory trying to hit Israeli civilians. Of course, that’s something we cannot [allow]. I guess there will be a confrontation. When and where exactly I can’t say.”
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Speaking at the spot where Palestinians fired a rocket into a yellow school bus in April, killing one student, Branski told foreign reporters that the three years since the IDF’s last incursion into the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead were used by Hamas to double its arsenal and bolster its forces.
“Our duty as an army is to be ready all the time for every kind of operation. If there’s an escalation we are ready for it and we know exactly what to do and where to hit Hamas and the other terror groups in the Gaza Strip," he said.
The latest flare up erupted last Thursday after an IDF air strike assassinated the leader of a terrorist group who had dispatched a squad to attack Israel. Palestinians retaliated by firing salvos of rockets into cities in the South. Most of those rockets landed in open fields and one was intercepted by the new Iron Dome anti-rocket batteries.
The flare-up came at a time when the economy in the coastal zone is flourishing. Ironically, this could be the result of Israel’s blockade, which it imposed after Hamas seized control of the enclave from Fatah in a bloody coup in 2007.
After Israel barred exports, tunnels that had once been used to smuggle weapons from Egypt became the main conduit for commercial merchandise. According to Palestinian figures, unemployment has fallen to 25 percent, compared with 45% just three years ago. There is currently a building boom underway and even skilled construction workers are hard to find.
“There are not enough skilled workers in Gaza right now, can you believe that,” said one senior IDF official involved with Palestinian economy. The official indicated with frustration that Hamas had used the Israeli policy to slowly gain control over the Gazan economy.
Israel changed its policy 18 months ago – after nine Turks died aboard the Mavi Marmara in a botched operation by the IDF to prevent them from breaking the blockade – and started to allow more items into Gaza as well as agriculture exports out to Europe through Israeli ports. In 2010, the Palestinians exported 400 tons of strawberries, cherry tomatoes and flowers.
Currently some 4,187 trucks from Israel and the Palestinian Authority cross into the Gaza Strip per month, generating an annual trade of about $1 billion. Conversely, another $1 billion in goods comes in through a clandestine network of over 1,000 tunnels running under the Egyptian-Gaza border.
“Hamas is gaining in strength and also the Islamic Jihad,” said a senior IDF commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’ll never be strong enough to be a serious contender against the IDF, but right now they are 100% more ready than before Cast Lead,” he said.
The army assessment is that Hamas wants quiet to prevail until at least the conclusion of a prisoner release later this month. The release is the second phase of a prisoner exchange that began in October with the return of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit for 479 Palestinian prisoners.
“Hamas is leading Gaza in the direction which we see will lead it to dire straits,” said the IDF officer closely involved with Palestinian trade. He repeatedly warned that Hamas’ “very aggressive and autocratic” rule was edging out private businesses and taking over the economy. It has replaced 70,000 civil service workers of the Palestinian Authority with 40,000 of its own and is investing heavily in military build up.
“Gaza is moving away from Israel and toward Sinai and Egypt. The markets
are over stocked and everything is available in Gaza. Whoever says
there is a blockade there is not in touch with reality,” the officer
said. “In its mind, Hamas sees itself connected to the Arab economy and
disconnecting from Israel.”
The problem, the officer explained, is that Egypt is much poorer than
Gaza and there is no demand for Gaza produce in Egypt. Also, water and
electricity are two areas that Gaza has failed to develop to keep pace
with its rapidly growing population.
The officer said because Islamists have been in power since 2006, he
views Gaza as five years ahead of the Arab Spring countries, like Egypt
and Tunisia, which are only now electing Islamists. He warned that
Islamist rule bode ill for these countries.
“They [the Gazans] are now paying the price of an Islamic extremist
government in control,” he said. “I’m not sure if elections took place
now that Hamas would do as well as it did in 2006. Hamas is creating a
lot of antagonism in Gaza and sowing the seeds of future problems.”
“The reality in Gaza is that Hamas is not addressing the general needs
of the population and they will at a certain stage become a critical
problem for Hamas. It is putting Gaza on a collision course with the
population,” he said.
“The Hamas regime is driving Gaza people to a calamity and not providing
the needs the street wants. The people of Gaza know that they must be
connected with Israel. There is no other way. We are waiting for a
change of heart in Gaza,” the senior Israeli officer said.